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E.T. Or N.U.T.?


I won't go so far as to say that Iain Softley's K-PAX represents Hollywood at its best, but I will readily say that it represents Hollywood at its better. The film arrives in theaters with a burnished look and offers lead performances by two of the best actors in the world. There's some humor here and some emotion there, a commendable theme about the importance of family and the ways in which the demands of contemporary work life sometimes blind us to what is really most important. But lest I stimulate too much enthusiasm for this film, I should confide my sad conviction that Hollywood at its better is like a very advanced robot. It may walk and talk, respond, act independently and even think. But that doesn't mean it has a soul.

K-PAX is the story of a man who claims to come from a galaxy far, far away. Prot (Kevin Spacey) is discovered in a train station trying to help the victim of a purse snatcher. When police arrive to arrest everyone in the vicinity, Prot volunteers that he's from the planet K-PAX, an orb with two suns and seven moons located about 1,000 light years out thataway. Surprisingly, the police question Prot's story and relocate him to a psych ward where he comes to the attention of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), a shrink with an uncommon urgency to help his patients. I am tempted to wonder just how many doctors working in public mental care facilities have the time and the resources Powell possesses, but I remember that all college professors in Hollywood movies drive Mercedes and live in mansions.

Powell doesn't actually believe that Prot is a K-PAXian, but he does think the patient is suffering from profound alienation. And when Prot reveals that he'll be heading home in a matter of weeks, Powell decides that he needs to help Prot quickly before he does injury to himself and takes that big journey from which there is no return. So now we have hypnosis in which Prot gives some strong clues as to who he might be if he's lying about the K-PAX stuff. Why Prot consents to the hypnosis is unclear save for its practicality in moving the story along.

Meanwhile, back on the domestic front, Powell is being less attentive than he should be to his wife (Mary McCormack) and kids. Mark isn't a bad guy. He's just distracted, always thinking about Prot and all the pre-Prots before him. That's one of the really good things that Prot does in this picture. He helps Mark to see that wives and kids are even more important than Prots, even though Prots are still pretty important, too. It's nice when patients can help the physician heal himself.

As the movie goes along, an important question arises like fragrant steam from a hot latte: Is Prot just a likable loon, or is he actually the light traveler he claims to be? Evidence for the former consists of the following: He looks, feels, eats, sleeps, breathes and moves like a human being named Robert Porter, a one-time slaughterhouse sledgehammer wielder who was traumatized when something really bad happened to him about five years ago. Most important, though Mark Powell doesn't actually utter this line, people from other planets are mostly confined to the movies. On the other hand, this is a movie. Other evidence that Prot is an extraterrestrial keeps percolating up as well. At one point Prot disappears and nobody can find him until he turns up in a tree. Were the orderlies looking for Prot in all the wrong places, or did he really escape the hospital before climbing that tree? In addition, Prot can see ultra-violet light and can diagram the orbit of K-PAX, whose existence is only known to Ph.D. astrophysicists who haven't mentioned that fact to anybody except each other. If Prot is really Robert Porter, he's one smart slaughterhouse sledgehammer wielder. Perhaps most important, Prot casually heals a bunch of the other patients at his hospital and ultimately facilitates a mysterious disappearance. How many slaughterhouse sledgehammer wielders can do that? In short, is Prot really E.T. or just another N.U.T.? Only the shadow knows.

But I wax flip. K-PAX is a more than serviceable entertainment. I liked its ending. And I always enjoy watching both Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges work. Still, I am reminded of a friend's response to another movie about a being from outer space, one that stands among Hollywood's transcendent best. A sophisticated, down-to-earth, often cynical person, my friend said about her rapturous reaction to Steven Spielberg's E.T., "It makes me want to go out and do good deeds for the rest of my life." That comment places the staying power of K-PAX in its proper context. It's a film that makes you want to go out and do good deeds for a day or two, after which you won't remember having seen it.

Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) tries to figure out why Robert Porter (Kevin Spacey) claims to be an alien in K-PAX.
  • Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) tries to figure out why Robert Porter (Kevin Spacey) claims to be an alien in K-PAX.

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